(A Series of Lessons on the 37 Articles ofThe Confession of Faith, A Reformed Creed usually called the Belgic Confession.)
Article XV: Original Sin
We believe that through the disobedience of Adam original sin is extended to all mankind; which is a corruption of the whole nature and a hereditary disease, wherewith even infants in their mother’s womb arc infected, and which produces in man all sorts of sin, being in him as a root thereof, and therefore is so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind. Nor is it altogether abolished or wholly eradicated even by baptism; since sin always issues forth from this woeful source, as water from a fountain; notwithstanding it is not imputed to the children of God unto condemnation, but by His grace and mercy is forgiven them. Not that they should rest securely in sin, but that a sense of this corruption should make believers often to sigh, desiring to be delivered from this body of death.
Wherefore we reject the error of the Pelagians, who assert that sin proceeds only from imitation_
Romans 5:12, 19 (The guilt of Adam’s first sin is imputed to all men).
Romans 3:10–12 (The universality of sin).
Acts 17:26 (All men are children of Adam since all are made “of one blood”; the organic unity of the human race).
Romans 7:18 ; 8:7 (Original sin is a “corruption of the whole nature”).
James 1:14, 15 (Original sin is the source of actual transgress ions) .
John 3:6 (Natural generation results in the birth of a sinful human nature; regeneration, or the new birth, produces a new nature).
Romans 7:23, 24 (Against the Christian’s will sin remains throughout this life, proceeding from the old nature) .
Psalm 34:16 (God hates sin, and will punish men for it).
Psalm 65:3 (God forgives his children their sins).
1. Why does the Belgic Confession devote an entire article to the subject of original sin?
Because it is one of the most basic of biblical ideas, and there[ are it is very important that we understand it as clearly as possible. Actually it is this doctrine which indicates ma n’s real need for the Gospel of redemption through Jesus Christ. The late Dr. Walter Maier of Lutheran Hour fame once said that because we no longer see the problem of ma n’s sin in the light of his original sin the Gospel has lost its pertinence and power for this generation. This statement is not too strong! We hope that the crucial importance of the doctrine of original sin will become plain to all of LIS as we attempt to explain this fifteenth article.
2. What is the central idea of this article?
The central idea is that beca use Adam was our representative head in the Covenant of Works his Call plunged all mankind into sin, which sin is “so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind.”
3. What is meant in this article by “the disobedience of Adam?”
This refers to Adam’s first sin in Paradise, the eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Only that sin is imputed or reckoned to the whole human race on account of the Covenant of Works. The rest of Adam’s sins were committed by him simply as an individual, since by his first sin he had lost his position as head or representative of the human race. That is why we need so desperately our Lord Jesus Christ, the “second Adam,” who can so represent us that by his redeeming work we can be saved from our sins.
4. Are there any who object to the teach ing that all men are sinners by nature beca use of Adam’s one transgression?
Yes. The article mentions at its close that “we reject the error of (he Pelagians, who assert that sin proceeds only from imitation.” In addition to this objection we have those who say that God will not condemn anyone because of Adam’s sin. These assert that men a re lost only if they reject the salvation offered in Christ Jesus.
5. Has Pelagianism very many adherents today?
Pelagianism has millions of adherents today, and we ought to be on our guard against them. Roman Catholicism is largely Pelagian. In addition, all those who stress that men arc born innocent, and that sin is only the result of those who lead us astray by their evil example are following out this heresy. In our day this theory lies at the bottom of much effort toward social reform (slum clearance, equalization of wealth, social security, etc.). Certainly the Christian heartily endorses consideration for the poor and the down-trodden, but he will never leave the impress ion that merely to provide them with an improved environment will prevent him from giving expression to his sinful nature! Men are in need of the Gospel first of all, and any “reform” not based upon Christ and h1s regenerating grace will not long endure. This ought to stimulate us to renewed zeal for a truly Reformed, Christian missionary activity.
6. Why is this doctrine denied by so many who claim to be Christians?
Very likely because this doctrine is so humiliating for the sinner. It makes impossible any kind of salvation through our own effort. Original sin means that salvation must be a free gift of God’s grace, or else we perish in our sins.
7. Will you suggest an answer for those who object to the biblical teaching that Adam, as the representative head of all mankind, brought sin and suffering upon all of us?
The best answer I have read to this question is offered by the Rev. J.C. Vos in his exposition of the Westminster Larger Catechism (The Banner Faith and Life, nos. 4–6, p. 48): “Whether we like it or not, the Bible teaches that God deals with humanity on the basis of the principle of representation, both in the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. The principle of representation functions constantly in ordinary human life and no one objects to it. The United States Congress declares war, and the life of every individual in the country is affected by it. Parents decide where they will live, and the nationality of their children is determined by it. If it be objected that the people elect their representatives in Congress, whereas we did not choose Adam to be our representative, the answer is: (a) The decisions of lawful representatives are binding whether those represented chose the representatives or not. The acts of Congress affect millions of people who arc too young to vote. A child does not choose its own parents, yet its life is largely affected by their actions and decisions. (b) It is true that we did not choose Adam to be our representative, but God chose him; and who could make a wiser, better or more righteous appointment than God? To object to God’s appointment of Adam as our representative in the Covenant of Works is not only to deny the sovereignty of God, but also to set ourselves up as wiser and more righteous than God.”
8. What is the extent of our sinfulness as a result of the fall?
Our Confession states that by virtue of original sin the “whole nature” is corrupt. It states also that this original sin functions like a “hereditary disease, when with even infants in their mother’s womb are infected.” This teaching is usually called “total depravity.”
9, What is the effect of this original sin in the lives of men?
Original sin is a root out of of which proceeds the corrupt fruit of sin. “Sin always issues forth [rom this woeful source.” To read a description of the sorts of vile and abominable sin which men practice and delight in because of the corruption of their nature turn to Romans 1:18–32.
10. Does total corruption of nature mean that the unbeliever can in no sense do anything good?
By God’s common grace, sinful men are prevented from doing al! that they might do consistent with the mo t of sin with in them, and within the civil or human sphere do things which are considered noble, heroic, self-sacrificing. The Reformed faith historically has often taken the position that even this “outward good” is to be attributed to God, whose common grace makes it possible, for the benefit of His children. Of course, this good never proceeds from the right motive, namely to love, serve, and please God.
11. We hear much about the evils of “Iiberalism” and “modernism”; what is the attitude of this type of theology over against such things as are taught here in connection with original sin?
The modernist denies everything taught in this article. For example: (a) Modern “liberalism” teaches that men are children of God by nature, and therefore need only to realize that fact to come into blessed communion with God. Over against that we believe that all men are “conceived and born in sin” (Psalm 51), and are therefore enemies of God by nature. (b) The modernist despises all talk of God’s wrath upon sin, choosing deliberately to reject all biblical teaching with respect to the justice of God, preferring to speak only of His love. (c) “Modernism” follows the Pelagian idea that all men are born in innocence. (d) “Modernism” speaks of sin as something typically human and social, rather than as personal guilt before Cod which deserves divine punishment.
12. Does the Christian have trouble in this life with sin even after he is regenerated?
The Confession here emphasizes this truth, thus militating against all those who claim that somehow the present-day Christian can say that he is here and now free from all sin. Because of regeneration it is no longer true that the sinner persistently delights in sin, but it is also painfully true that he is compelled daily to plead for mercy that his sins may be forgiven.
13. But isn’t this a good excuse for our practice of sin, especially those “character sins” which so easily beset us?
Nothing is a good excuse for any of our sins, since we are all guilty in Adam, whom God created good and after his own image. Anyone that sins deliberately, excusing himself by saying that he couldn’t resist it or that “he is just built that way” is deceiving himself, and not act ing as a true child of God. So this article declares that we may not “rest securely in sin, but that a sense of this corruption should make believers often to sigh, desiring to be delivered from this body of death.” In this connection read Romans 7.
14. What is the real importance of this teaching?
The real importance of the biblical explanation of the doctrine of original sin is that it offers us God’s own instruction as to the possibility of being saved by his Son, Jesus Christ. The pattern is this: By one man sin entered the world, because all men were comprehended in Adam. Therefore, by one mall, our Lord Jesus Christ, the more abounding grace of God comes to all the elect. Representative salvation is possible because of the fact that God so constructed the human race that it is possible for one to be the “root” out of which many brethren may come forth unto eternal life. Whoever objects to this truth must also reject the truth that the second Adam can bring us salvation.
Article XVI: Eternal Election
We believe that, all the posterity of Adam being thus fallen into perdition and ruin by the sin of our first parents, God then did manifest Himself such as He is; that is to say, merciful and just; merciful, since He delivers and preserves from this perdition all whom He in His eternal and unchangeable counsel of mere goodness has elected in Christ Jesus our Lord, without any respect to their works; just, in leaving others in the fall and perdition wherein they have involved themselves.
Ephesians 2:4, 5; Deuteronomy 4:31 (God is merciful ).
II Timothy 4:8; Revelation 16:5–7 (God is just).
Ephesians 1:3,4 (God is the author of predestination).
Romans 8:29 (Men are the objects of election).
I Timothy 5:21 (Angels are the objects of election).
II Thessalonians 2:13; Romans 11:5 (Election is unto salvation).
Romans 9:13f.; 11:7; I Peter 2:8 (Reprobation is unto damnation) .
1. What is the subject matter of this sixteenth article of our Belgic Confess ion?
The doctrine of predestination is stated in this article. Predestination is God’s eternal and unchangeable decree with respect to the destiny of men and of angels. It is divided into two parts, the election unto salvation of all who are in Christ and the reprobation unto eternal punishment of all those left in “the fall and perdition wherein they have involved themselves.”
2. What does the Bible say about the truth of divine predestination?
The Scriptures teach that the eternal destiny of men is decided accord ing to God’s decree. God has made everything for his own purpose, including the wicked for the day of evil (Prov. 16:4). God declares to Rebecca, before the children were born that the elder should serve the younger, for Jacob has he loved but Esau has he hated (Rom. 9:10–13). Romans 9–11 makes reference to Pharaoh over whom God exercises his divine right to harden whom He wills, to the elect Isaac and the reprobate Ishmael, and above a ll to those famous twins, Jacob and Esau. God’s Word speaks of “the book of life” in which the names of the elect are written (Rev. 21:27). As many as are ordained unto eternal life believe (Acts 13:48). The Scripture speaks repeatedly concerning the doctrine of predestination.
3. Isn’t this one of the most often repudiated biblical doctrines?
Most certainly. Fact is that all non-Reformed individuals repudiate this very important doctrine, plain as the Scriptures are in teaching it. It requires real courage to stand for this truth in today’s world.
4. By whom and how is this doctrine denied?
(a) The Arminian teaches that God’s elect ion is based upon foreseen faith. God knew who would believe, and therefore he elected them. Thus in reality there is no longer a significant electing choice on God’s part. Fact is that God chose us not because we believe, but in order that we might believe.
(b) Some deny that God elects certain individuals personally, and teach that election has to do merely with the group. This is, of course, an impossible teaching, since how can we conceive of a group of individuals apart from the identity of the individuals? Over against this the Scriptures say: “Jacob have I loved.”
(c) Those who believe in a universal atonement, that . is, the unbiblical doctrine that Christ actually died for the sins of all men, and now it is up to the individual to take ad vantage of it, find it necessary, of course, to alter the doctrine of predestination accordingly. This is a very common error in our day.
(d) Modern “neo·orthodox,” dialectical theology, represented by such famous thinkers as Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Reinhold Niebuhr and others, uses the terminology of the Scriptures freely at this point. However, the biblical idea of predestinanation as something finished and settled even from eternity is rejected in favor of the idea that “all are in the process of becoming elect; election is a way, a way in which all men can and will walk upon as it leads up-ward in Christ” (C. VanTil, The New Modernism, p. 280). Thus there are not two groups of men, the elect and the reprobate, but all men are reprobate, and all men will become elect in Christ. This, of course, eliminates the biblical idea of predestination entirely.
5. What is the necessary “point-of-view” adopted by this article?
It is expressed in the opening words: “We believe that, all the posterity of Adam being thus fallen into perdition and ruin by the sin of our first parents.” This same basic assumption is expressed in the Canons of Dort, first head of doctrine, article I: “As all men have sinned in Adam, lie under the curse, and are deserving of eternal death, God would have done no injustice by leaving them all to perish and delivering them over to condemnation on account of sin…” It is very easy to see that this starting point must be adopted if we are to think correctly on this matter. If we abandon this starting point we shall, of course, find ourselves constantly perplexed, to put it mildly, at the thought of God’s final, unchangeable, eternal predestinating decrees.
6. In the case of divine election is eternal life the only thing to which men are elected?
No, but as the Westminster Larger Catechism, question 13, explains: “God, by an eternal and immutable decree…hath chosen some men to eternal life, and the means thereof… (italics mine, 1-H.P.). The elect have also been chosen to receive the means of obtaining eternal life. Thus it is foreordained that a certain person will hear the preaching of the Gospel, repent, believe on Jesus Christ as His personal Savior, etc. So also the Canons of Dort say: “The elect in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain the assurance or this their eternal and unchangeable election, not by inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God, but by observing in themselves with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure the infallible fruits of ejection pointed out in the Word of God—such as, a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirst ing after righteousness, etc.”
7. In the case of those whom God has “passed by,” is there a reason why they have not been chosen to eternal life?
To us the reasons why some are “passed by” are not given by the Scriptures. The ground of God’s decree of reprobation is always presented as His sovereignty, that is, God’s supreme authority. not the character or works or life of the persons involved. The Belgic Confession uses the term “of mere goodness” to indicate that the elect are elect for no such reasons as superior endowments. nobler character, etc. So also the reprobate are not reprobate because they lack certain qualifications but because God in His sovereign authority has so decreed. This does not mean that God is arbitrary or capricious in His decree of reprobation. On the contrary, He reveals His justice precisely in this decree!
8. Why are the reprobate ordained to eternal condemnation, and not, say, annihilated by God?
They are ordained to everlasting punishment because of their sins. The Confession rightfully states that God leaves the reprobate in their fall and perdition “wherein they have involved themselves.” Men are not punished because God passed them by, but they are punished because God’s justice requires that the sinner shall be rewarded according to his sin. In hell they will recognize and acknowledge that God has dealt with them according to strictest justice. And that is why annihilation is impossible. Sin calls (or vindication of God’s justice, which would be impossible if men were merely obliterated by God as sinners. This idea that God will not punish the unbeliever with everlasting punishment has been popularized in our day by the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect, and has proven, of course, to be a very attractive feature of their heretical religion.
9. What about that oft-raised objection: “If I’m elect I’II go to heaven and if not, what can I do about it!”
This betrays a complete misunderstanding of the doctrine of election. Those who are elect will believe and will become Christians, because that too is involved in the decree of election. If an individual seriously practices such an attitude it is a certain indication that he is not a child of God. We ought to be very careful here, because it is so easy for sinners to make themselves believe that they are not obligated to serve God since they can do nothing apart from his grace anyway. I do not believe, under ordinary circumstances, that this position can be held with sincerity!
10. Wouldn’t it be better to avoid mention of the doctrine of predestination since men so often misuse it?
All doctrines call be misused. We must take care not to be wiser than God, who makes frank mention of the doctrine repeatedly in his Word. Not only is it mentioned and expounded in the Bible, but it is also used as something which ought to be a source of comfort to the believer. That the unbeliever finds no joy in this truth is not hard to understand. Actually he finds no comfort in any truth of Scripture. To the believer, therefore. it is of great usefulness for his encouragement and assurance to know that God’s unchangeable decree rests beneath his salvation in Christ. Let us use this doctrine aright, not as an excuse for an attempt to discover the hidden will of God, put as a basis for all our service as Christians.
11. Mention two ways in which this doctrine is abused.
Indifference and false passivity are two ways in which this doctrine is often abused. The indifference assume the attitude of “what do I care about something which is altogether in the hands of God.” They thus wrest this truth unto their destruction. The inactive are fatalist in their attitude. They are· so preoccupied with their inability that they practice a kind of passivity which appears very pious. Actually they are in complete misunderstanding of the doctrine of God’s predestination. When God speaks to us of his Son, it is not for us to speculate as to whether he has chosen us to eternal life, but rather to obey his Word in which he calls us to believe, to repent, to live the life of sanctification, etc.
12. But isn’t there a special difficulty involved in this doctrine?
Yes, there is the difficulty of harmonizing God’s election with man’s free agency as a responsible creature. Please notice that the Confession merely states the doctrine of predestination without attempting to solve this problem. Fact is, that the Bible teaches both: God’s sovereign election and man’s responsibility, and we do well to accept in faith its teaching, regardless of its difficulty.
13. How must we use this truth?
(a) We ought first of all to heed the apostle’s admonition “to make our calling and election sure” (II Peter 1:10). This is to be done by walking in the way of God’s will as revealed in the Scriptures.
(b) We ought to, be impressed with our responsibility to a Sovereign God. If God is sovereign, surely we must serve him obediently and zealously. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God worketh in you both to will and to work according to his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:12b,13).
(c) We ought to bend every effort to glorify God. Through election and reprobation God is seen as he is: merciful and just. He must be adored, since he alone is worthy of adoration. “He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.” God has elected us, not because we are worthy, but to show his praises before men.